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The Godfather Speaks

Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the iconic Godfather series, reveals secrets about the making of the epic saga.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 13)

CA: It's under the bed cover.
Coppola: I had him wake up and draw the sheet and see the blood and think he's been wounded. And he doesn't know: Is it his body? Has he been stabbed? And he opens the sheets and there is the horse in bed with him. So, that's the difference between the way the director did it and the way the author did it.

CA: How could the fact that certain things in the film that Mario or you had come up with became accepted years later as the way things really are, like the thing of sleeping with the fishes?
Coppola: But he had heard that. He made up the idea; as a matter of fact, you see it all the time in movies, and they put a fish in a newspaper. He had made things up. I don't know what's real and what isn't real.

CA: Stop for a second. You just said something that was profound: "I don't know what's real and what isn't real." The whole thing I'm trying to get at is that millions and millions of people, myself included, believe that the way they look, the way they talk, the way they behave—everything—was The Godfather. It was the most richly accurate, detailed examination of the Mafia that anyone had ever seen or heard.
Coppola: Well, I have to disillusion you. Knowing how the movie was made and knowing what I knew, I have to tell you that it is not the truth. We staged it. We just said, "OK, you sit here and you sit here." We used common sense and, as I said, I used things I remembered from my family. But I didn't know. I'd never been around a Mafia family. I have no idea. I just assume they're like an Italian family.

The story I wanted to tell you is that Mario used to like to gamble. So, he had a lot of cronies that would hang around him. Not so much from the Mafia, but from the gambling world. And, once we were somewhere and he had some character with him and the guy looked at me and he says, "Hey, you just remember: you didn't make him; he made you." And it was true.

CA: You made this movie without any understanding or expectation that this was something that the American moviegoer would embrace. That was 30 years ago and there seems to be an endless series of crime-related movies in the theaters, as well as on television. Now we're in the next century, the new millennium, and we have this series "The Sopranos" on HBO, and people keep describing it as the next-generation Godfather. Why do you think this topic of the Mafia is so magnetic, a subject that fascinates millions and millions of Americans?
Coppola: I can only guess and speculate. First of all, America has always had an interest in outlaws, from the days that we liked to see cowboy movies or learn about Jesse James, or when we were kids and played pirates. I think we live our lives in very repetitive, normal ways. We go to work, we're all pretty much law-abiding. There's always a romantic fascination with the idea of people who don't take those limitations and kind of do what they want.

In American culture, that was exemplified by the wild West. You had these fabulous legendary heroes that came out of maybe real, authentic people in the West. But they were romanticized. People like Jesse James or Wes Harden or Doc Holliday. They enter the mythology of the country. That was picked up by the gangster movies, because the gangster was in a funny way the urban version of the cowboy that we know.

I think people are fascinated by outlaws, because, for the most part, they are not outlaws. They can only imagine. Second, I thought that when I read The Godfather, that there was something really attractive about the idea that if you have had injustice, if your neighbor has done something terrible or someone has been unfair to you, and you know that you can't really go to the police and the legal system isn't going to honor your complaint, that there's something really attractive about the fact that you could go to someone like a godfather and say, "Lookit, you know, they've done this to me. I was innocent, they did this to me." And you would get justice.

I found that first scene in the beginning of the movie, when the little undertaker tells the story about the daughter who was raped, that you could go to someone. I think that was a very powerful idea that Mario came to understand. All of us would like that, as we're double-crossed or someone takes advantage of us. I think there is a fascination with the romantic outlaw.

That's the idea that you can get real justice from someone without going through the corruption of the court system. I think that was partly what had to do with the appeal of Mario's book, because we must remember that Mario's book was a masterful, masterful best-seller. And that the movie picked up the energy. Everyone knew The Godfather was kind of like Gone with the Wind. When I was hired, it wasn't. But, by the time a year or so had gone by, The Godfather was a phenomenon.

We made a famous movie years ago called American Graffiti and, like a year and a half later, there was a television series called "Happy Days" with Ron Howard. Television always looks to what's going on in the movies and tries to pick up and leverage that.


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